By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benét

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What happens in By the Waters of Babylon?

A young man is initiated into the priesthood of the Hill People. After becoming convinced that he should seek out additional knowledge, he travels to the forbidden Dead Lands, where he discovers the ruins of New York City.

  • The Hill People follow a set of strange old traditions, including spiritual practices that forbid people from touching metal that hasn't been purified by a priest.

  • Having been initiated into the priesthood, a young man becomes convinced that he must break the taboo against traveling through the Dead Lands in order to seek out ancient knowledge that he can bring back to his people.

  • Upon reaching the ruins of New York City, the young man finds preserved food, strong wine, and technologies he intends to bring back to his people.

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Summary

"By the Waters of Babylon" tells the story of a man named John who belongs to a tribe called the Hill People. John is the son of a priest, and he is initiated into the priesthood himself when he comes of age. According to the laws of his tribe, all persons are forbidden to travel east to what is called The Dead Place, or the Place of the Gods. Priests are allowed to travel there, but only to collect metal, and when they return, they must be purified. John, however, has an insatiable curiosity about the gods, and he has visions of the Dead Place. This place was once a great city that was destroyed by a great burning. According to the lore of his tribe, since the burning, the place has been inhabited with spirits and demons.

As part of his initiation into the priesthood, John travels to the Dead Place. He crosses an abandoned highway and a river, and he finally arrives at the forbidden city, which is a post-apocalyptic New York. John learns that the secrets the priests had told him about this Dead Place are not true, and in fact, the items in the city are not magical objects of the gods, but modern appliances and machines that were destroyed in the apocalypse. Similarly, the gods are not gods but simply men who abused their knowledge and abilities and caused destruction to the world.

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Forest People compete with the Hill People, who have slightly more advanced skills in spinning wool, hunting, and using metals. The priests of the Hill People have not forgotten the old writings and have some knowledge of healing—such as how to stop bleeding. Bound by superstition and taboos based on experience, tribe members are forbidden to go east, cross the great river, enter the Dead Places, or touch metal not purified by priests. These strictures have been in force throughout tribal memory. In addition, the people fear spirits and demons and have an ancestral memory of a “Great Burning.”

A young member of the Hill People, the narrator has studied for the priesthood under his father. He has learned chants, spells, and medical secrets, and has made dangerous journeys searching for metal in spirit houses. Now he has come of age and has reached the time of initiation and spirit journey. He undergoes purification rites, answers questions about his dreams, and tells his father about the vision that he sees in the smoke of the fire. His vision is of a gigantic Dead Place in its time of glory; although his father fears that his son’s strong dream will eat him up, he sends his son on the journey of discovery required as the final initiation into the priesthood. After fasting, the young man awaits a sign....

(The entire section is 776 words.)